BEVERLY HILLS — New Zealand director Taika Waititi ascended in the film world making vampire mockumentaries and '80s-infused coming-of-age stories.
Then Marvel called.
What they wanted was a fresh take on the third installment of the rather sober Thor franchise. What they got was Thor: Ragnarok, a film starring Chris Hemsworth as the god of thunder that's so subversive and cheeky, it scored a 96% fresh rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, leaving bemused critics (including USA TODAY'S Brian Truitt) saying it might even be slapstick to a fault.
"I might just get Chris’ face tattooed on my face" in celebration, the director jokes. "Just to seal the deal."
For Ragnarok, Waititi, 42, made Jeff Goldblum the petulant overlord, Cate Blanchett the villain and Tessa Thompson a sword-wielding vigilante. The director pulls double duty, also starring as Korg, Thor's sweetly dimwitted new sidekick who's made of a crumbling pile of rocks.
Finally, the shooting pain on the left side of Waititi's body earned from a year spent hunched over in a dark editing bay is gone.
He takes a bite of his lobster roll. “You work two years and you stress out, you get neck problems — halfway through that, you’re like, 'What am I doing? This is a disaster!' Then you fall in love with your film and think it’s the greatest film ever. Then you wonder what you’re doing.” He shakes his head. “And then at the end when people actually like it? The sense of relief is really huge.”
The director arrived in the Avengers universe after building a cult following with heartfelt comedies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the drolly verité What We Do in the Shadows.
It was Hemsworth who covertly brought him into the process.
“His name came up on a short list for Thor (Ragnarok),” Hemsworth told reporters at the film’s Hollywood premiere. “And I called him up and I said, ‘You know what, I think we've got to pretend we don’t know one another, and let it be Marvel’s idea that you’re the right guy for the job.’ So we kind of manipulated that situation quite nicely."
Waititi says he wanted Thor to more closely resemble the ripped Australian who plays him, calling Hemsworth charming, kind and funny. "You just want to go on an adventure with him because he’s loyal and he’ll look after you," he says. "That’s what we want from Thor."
In person, the filmmaker is more candid than most, willing to sound off on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which has grown to encompass Kevin Spacey and directors James Toback and Brett Ratner. “Do people just expect that’s the way it is? I can’t get my head around it, because I find it really gross."
On the Ragnarok set, he kept it light, blasting rock music between takes and improvising with his actors. “He played music during my scenes if they sucked,” Hemsworth laughed. “Drowning me out like the Academy Awards speech.”
Speaking of awards, “Why is there no Oscar for comedy?" Waititi asks. "I’ll tell you right now, it’s way harder to do that than drama. Keeping a straight face and having water come out of your eyes while you say (these) words — anyone can do that."
But, "turning it on and creating a moment of energy and life and making people laugh? It’s excruciating when you’re trying to reach for it, and when you get it, everyone’s like 'Ha-ha, comedy, stupid.' "
Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum